How fans are keeping the Arts alive
By Ed Appleby, Illustrator
Being a cartoonist is hard. Not only do you need to draw, write, design, and produce a comic every day, but you also have to come up with some sort of ingenious way for that comic to make money.
Traditionally, the sales and marketing of a comic were left up to a syndicate. Universal Press Syndicate and King Features make up the lion’s share of the comic strips in syndication, with a few smaller syndicates and the odd independent filling out the newspaper. Today, getting in with a syndicate is akin to winning the lottery, with thousands of submissions competing against each other for the few spots available. Even so, each paper decides which comic strips they publish. The general consensus is that to make a living you need to be published in between 120-150 newspapers. With newspapers bowing under the weight and immediacy of the Internet, and other papers slashing comics pages in order to save costs, this number is getting farther out of reach for new artists.
Then there is the Internet: the cartoonist no longer has to go through the newspapers. Artists can deliver their art directly to the consumer with little overhead. You would think that this would open up new lines of income for the content creators, but instead it has led to a culture where anyone with a pencil and a scanner can call themselves a cartoonist. Without the editors at the syndicates deciding what a quality comic strip is, cartoonists have to turn themselves into shameless self-promoters just to be noticed, and push hard to stay noticed.
Being a successful cartoonist on the web requires a lot more work, but many have adapted to the wild west of the Internet. Attempts to get readers to pay for content directly have failed with the exception of some adult comic sites. Instead, most creators offer the comics online for free and make money through selling merchandise, hosting ads on their site, and opening themselves up for commission and freelance jobs. A few creators have been able to survive on this business plan.
Those comics that thrive such as Penny Arcade (Penny-Arcade.com), Least I Could do (LeastICouldDo.com), and Questionable Content (QuestionableContent.net) not only survive on their merchandise and marketing, but have large readerships carefully crafted through years of content creation. As an illustrator, these are the cartoonists that I use as the models of what I wish to achieve.
There is an unfortunate paradox for someone like myself, who produces a comic strip full-time. In order to make a living you need to publish books and produce merchandise, but you cannot afford to make merchandise if you work full-time on the comic, and you cannot sell the merchandise to your audience if you don’t work full-time on establishing that audience.
Many would tell you that this wasn’t always the way. Artists often harken back to the days of art patronage, when men and women of high standing would support an artist on the merits of their work. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and William Shakespeare all enjoyed the support of their wealthy patrons. However, even then there weren’t enough rich patrons to go around for every artist; even then the artists did not have the freedom to work on whatever they wished. As Samuel Johnson so eloquently put it in his letter to Lord Chesterfield, “Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?”
Regardless, patronage died with the rise of capitalism. The age of private patrons in the Arts made way for more public systems of support. Public museums and art galleries housed fine arts, while other artists needed to turn a profit for their producers and publishers. New art forms emerged that fit better into the capitalist structure, such as filmmaking, illustration, and cartooning. Patronage still exists in a much smaller capacity in the form of government grants, with increased competition for big artists and almost nothing for smaller producers.
There is a ray of hope: the trend of crowdsourcing sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have allowed creators to produce larger projects such as movies, books, and video games. This is fine for projects that require a large amount of capital to get off the ground, but does little to support the content creators themselves. Kickstarter has a strict policy of not running what it calls “‘fund my life’ projects”—so it’s great for getting a book printed, but when it comes to feeding your kids, you’d better get to work selling that book.
This is where sites like Patreon (Patreon.com) come in. Instead of working towards an end goal, the site instead encourages donors to pledge a certain amount every time a creator produces a piece of content. This could be for a YouTube video, song, podcast, or any type of creation. In the case of creators who produce high volumes of work, such as a cartoonist like myself who produces a strip every day, you can instead bid per month.
The benefit of Patreon to the creator is pretty obvious as a source of income that reoccurs as often as you create, but there are benefits to the patrons as well. They get access to exclusive content, interact with the creators, and discover new artists to follow and fund. Most of the people I spoke to who had heard of Patreon were already funding someone, and were actively looking for more to fund.
The whole process seemed just too good to me, so I signed up (Patreon.com/EdAppleby). I had used other crowdfunding sites before, having been involved in several campaigns including one for my own comic book that fell short of the goal. I was curious to see just how labour-intensive the process would be, and if this could be a viable income source.
The process of signing up was easy, and the layout of the site was a breeze to navigate. Immediately upon signing up, the site guided me through how to set up the campaign, tips and tricks on running a profitable campaign, as well as how to post rewards at each level of patronage. When it came to rewards, Patreon’s creators’ toolkit stated “We do not want fulfilling Patreon rewards to be a burden on our creators. We want you to have rewards that are scalable, cost effective, and easy to fulfill,” which is a departure from the stretch goals associated with other crowdfunding sites.
Upon launching my Patreon campaign, I got my first patron—but so far, that has been all. Unlike a Kickstarter campaign though, I do not have a deadline to meet my funding goal. I can tweak and adjust my campaign as much as I care without the pressure of running out of time.
When it comes to making a successful campaign, it’s a good idea to check out other, more successful campaigns. One such campaign is that of Joel Watson (HijinksEnsue.com) who, as of the writing of this article, was making $1253.30 per month. On the surface, Watson is definitely what we would consider a successful cartoonist. He is well-known and well-regarded in the community, he produces quality work, and is represented by Blind Ferret Media, which makes his site’s advertising very profitable. So why would someone who has “already made it” want to take advantage of Patreon’s powerful money-making ability?
Watson makes it very clear in his campaign: he needs the help of Patreon because he is so successful. In order to make his comic work he has to travel to conventions, take on freelance work, and produce merchandise, and in the process he has been run so hard that he has been missing major events in his family’s life. His daughter has grown up while he has been on the road and he doesn’t want to miss any more. Patreon has become the answer for him, and the dream of every cartoonist. The ability to make a living doing your art.
And Watson is right. Cartoonists shouldn’t have to hustle and work ourselves to the bone to put food on the table. We put our hearts and souls into creating works that make people think, laugh, and feel as if they belong. And Patreon has given our audience the ability to give a little something back. Just the knowledge that someone cares that much about what we do keeps us going.
In the end, that is what really should count.